Russian forces are working to expand the tarmac of a major airport in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia, a stronghold of President Bashar Assad and his minority sect, a prominent Syrian activist group said Sunday.
The report comes amid rising concern among U.S. officials of increased Russian military activity in Syria. President Barack Obama cast the buildup as an effort to prop up the embattled leader, warning Moscow against doubling down on Assad.
Russia, a longtime backer of Syria’s government, denies it’s trying to bolster Assad and instead says its increased military activity is part of the international effort to defeat ISIS, the militant group that has wreaked havoc in both Syria and Iraq.
The Associated Press reported earlier this week, quoting a former Lebanese general with knowledge of the Syrian military, that there were plans to build a military base in the coastal town of Jableh, more than 20 kilometers south of Latakia city. It is where the airport currently under development is located.
The airport, known by its old name Hemeimeem, already houses a military base, and has come under shelling from militants who have advanced in the countryside of the province. “In recent weeks, military airplanes arrived in Hemeimeem carrying military equipment and hundreds of Russian military advisers and technicians,” the group said.
It is the second most important government controlled airport in Syria after Damascus airport. The Hemeimeem airport was renamed the Bassel Assad International Airport, after the brother of the current president, who died in a car accident in 1994. According to the Syrian Civil Aviation Authority website, the airport’s tarmac is currently 2,800 meters long and 45 meters wide. It only has one terminal, according to the site.
The head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel-Rahman, said witnesses, including officials inside the airport, describe the tarmac development as planned to ensure larger planes can land in the airport.
“It could mean there will be more supplies or that they want to turn it into an international airport,” Abdel-Rahman said.
Abdel-Rahman also said sources reported that Russia was enlarging the Hamidieh airport in Tartous province, another regime stronghold that is south of Latakia.
The witnesses told the Observatory no Syrian military or civilian officials are allowed near the tarmac.
Abdel-Rahman said Russian planes arrived in recent weeks carrying military equipment and hundreds of Russian military advisers. He said the experts are also believed to be studying the expansion of the Damascus international airport.
Meanwhile Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia would continue with military supplies to Syria, according to Russian news agencies. “There were military supplies, they are ongoing and they will continue. They are inevitably accompanied by Russian specialists, who help to adjust the equipment, to train Syrian personnel how to use these weaponry,” he said.
Lavrov also said that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is traveling to New York for the U.N. General Assembly meeting later this month, plans to address the assembly on the topics of Syria, the conflict in Ukraine, the state of the global economy and sanctions against Russia.
“He [Putin] will touch specific aspects, such as Syria, the Ukraine crisis. All these crises arise from systemic problems regarding attempts to freeze the process of forming polycentric world,” Lavrov said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel Saturday said Germany and other Western European powers need to work with Russia as well as the United States to solve the crisis in Syria.
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier met with his Russian, French and Ukrainian counterparts in Berlin Saturday evening and said afterward he saw growing support for creating an international contact group to solve the Syrian conflict.
Earlier, a delegation source said Steinmeier and Lavrov had a lengthy exchange about Syria on the sidelines of the meeting, with both agreeing to support the U.N. Syrian envoy, Staffan de Mistura’s plan to create a Syrian contact group.
De Mistura has invited warring parties to take part in U.N.-led working groups to address matters including political and constitutional issues, and military and security issues.
Meanwhile, Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said Europe should stop looking on helplessly as “murder” rages on in Syria, as he called on the bloc to review its strategy on the conflict.
“The fight against the Syrian dictator Assad and the so-called Islamic State has not been carried out with the necessary determination,” he told the Tagesspiegel newspaper in an interview published Sunday.
Europe “needs a strategy that is not restricted from the outset to diplomacy,” de Maiziere said, although his reply was “no” when asked if he thought the bloc should send in ground troops.
Also Sunday, one of the most powerful Islamic groups fighting Assad’s forces, Ahrar al-Sham, announced that it chose a new leader. The group said in a statement posted on social media that Mohannad al-Masri, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Yahia al-Hamawi, was elected by consensus.
Hamawi replaces Hashim al-Sheikh, who led the group for a year after its senior leadership was killed in a bombing last year.
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